A month ago, I took a wonderful Lebanese bread-making class with Reem Assil at the Arab Cultural Center in San Francisco to learn more about the food and spices of Lebanon. I love food from this region of the world. Everything tastes so fresh while still being rich in spices and herbs. I feel like every bite is the best of the East and West. Yet, I know very little about Lebanese food. What I do know often gets lumped into the “Middle Eastern” food category and that does not sit well with me. I would really like to get to a point where I can distinguish a specialty or two from countries in the Middle East. Taking Reem’s class was one step in trying to expand my knowledge. I signed up through Brown Paper Tickets to learn how to make savory pastries and flatbread. Having no real experience baking bread, I was also excited to learn the science behind bread making.
Reem, a Palestinian Syrian (whose mom was raised in Lebanon), is a social activist, a professional baker (once part of the Arizmendi Bakery cooperatives—one of my favorite bakeries in the Bay Area), a teacher, and a budding entrepreneur at La Cocina. Basically, she is amazing! I loved how she weaved in stories and shared tips and techniques while taking us step by step through dough-making. It was a wonderful way to spend 4 hours. Best of all, it was a fun, interactive experience where I ate bread and made bread with a wonderful group of ladies (Where were the men?).
We made Lahm-bi-ajeen (a flatbread traditionally eaten as a snack or meal) on an upside-down wok (unfortunately, the photo did not turn out)—a creative substitute for the traditional saaj. We placed our thinly rolled-out dough on top followed by a spiced ground beef and lamb mixture. About 10 minutes later, it was done. We then topped it off with fresh parsley, cilantro, and a big squeeze of lemon. So, so good. With a combination of sweet, sour, pungent, and bitter tastes, it was satisfying and well-balanced with heating and cooling energy. I loved how the bread was thin and crispy. It was hard to stop myself—but during this season, bread is a distant friend, so I needed to keep my boundaries in check. Balance is key.
We also made a ton of Mu’ajjanaat, which refers to savory pastries in Arabic. We used the same meat mixture as we put on the flatbread to make Sfeeha (mini meat pies), a delicious Arab melting cheese called akkawi (available at Oasis Food Market in Oakland) to make Fatayar Jibne, and a spiced spinach mixture to make Fatyar Sabanikh. After making a few batches, my respect for bakers and pastry chefs increased tenfold. Rolling, cutting, shaping, stuffing, and sealing looks easy, but after making about 10, I started to recognize that I needed a system. If I was going to make this at home, I would definitely invite friends and turn this into a Mu’ajjanaat-making party. Making Mu’ajjanaat is a labor of love. The secret is not just in the flavor, but also in the technique and consistency, which make these pastries a visual delight.
Thank you to bakers like Reem who want to continue this tradition and bring it to the masses. I felt so fortunate to have this experience with her in a small setting. Being able to watch firsthand and then practice was key. I walked away with full belly and heart.
What I Learned
- Bakers have amazing arms strength.
- Making dough is easier than I thought. It’s the rolling, shaping, and stuffing that I really need to master.
- Dough can be made a day or several days ahead! Being able to break up the process into 2 days—I’m all about it.
- Keeping the Fatayar Sabanikh from opening up in the oven is a REAL technique—what’s the secret?
- Turning a wok upside-down is a great substitute for a saaj, or I can use my thava (Indian double oven used to make chapati) too and make Lahm-bi-ajeen at home.
- Once you get the rhythm down to roll, cut, stuff, and seal, making Mu’ajjanaat can be relaxing and meditative.
- Mu’ajjanaats are as revered as samosas. And similarly, making them with a group is the way to go.
- Consistency in thickness and size is key to baking evenly and faster (less re-work).
- Every culture has something wrapped in dough, and it’s so loved! Food really shows our similarities and what we as humans enjoy. We are not as different as we would like to think.
- Reem will be popping up at 18 Reasons in the Mission District of San Francisco on the last Saturday of every month starting in April—I can’t wait!
Check out Reem’s recipe for Golden Cake or Lebanese Tea Cake with Turmeric & Orange Blossom